The Internet could be Hong Kong's greatest hope in preserving freedom of speech as the territory seeks to compete in Internet markets.
Even after China takes over jurisdiction on July 1, Hong Kong could be spared the country's restrictive information policies because the Internet has become so widely used throughout the territory. In addition, China may choose not to tamper with the gains Hong Kong has made in the high-technology marketplace.
The Internet "is likely to be the outlet where uncensored views see the light of day" if China cracks down on the Hong Kong press, according to a report by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, a Hong Kong consultant group.
Rising over free speech and hope for the Internet come after a panel this weekend recommended repealing or amending 25 laws and ordinances that protected citizens' freedom of speech, including the right not to be jailed without cause, to demonstrate without government license, and to impartially administer elections.
Many in Hong Kong had assumed that although China would take back control of the territory, existing rules regarding free speech would remain intact.
Although Asia is one of the world's fastest-growing markets for the Internet and high technology, restrictive governmental policies in countries such as China and Singapore have raised questions about their ability to keep pace with the growth of technology while maintaining strict control over its content.
Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, and Taiwan are expanding their presence on the Internet as they intensify their efforts to become global players in the high-tech market.
The report said that Hong Kong has a "very computer literate" population and a well-developed Internet network compared with many Asian countries. Its number of Internet dial-up customers is soon likely to top 200,000, the consultancy said.
The territory has 49 Internet service providers, and the number of Hong Kong companies with Web pages has jumped to 493 from 155 a year ago.
Almost 100 community service groups have a presence on the Net, and nearly all of Hong Kong's universities and technical schools and 37 primary and secondary schools have sites on the Web. School-age Hong Kong residents could be among the most "Internet literate" in Asia, the report said.
Hong Kong residents have a large Net presence outside the territory as well. "Moreover the network of ethnic Chinese with roots in Hong Kong stretches worldwide, and there are probably more Internet sites about Hong Kong physically located outside the territory than there are in it," the report said.
That trend could accelerate if China turns up the heat on Web sites within the territory. "One way to monitor the fact or fear of China's clampdown on such groups is to track which of these sites stay located in Hong Kong, which ones shut down altogether, and which ones move to a physical location outside," it said.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.
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